Game Content: Talking About What Really Sells Edition

Games are constantly being attacked for sex and violence - even though we have none of the first, and strictly control the second. Politicians, media, parents and crazy lawyers all attack the industry with a broad brush, sweeping kids together with adults, and M rated games together with E’s. The industry is diverse enough to accommodate Mario and Snake Plisken but the media and politicians still portray our market as one for children. The average aged gamer, who is 33 years old, probably enjoys playing Mario, but he also wants to play some Halo, a bit of GTA, some Call of Duty and a touch of Zelda.

Just to place some perspective on the market, I pulled some information from The Entertainment Software Association and the list of the top selling games from Next Gen. According to The ESA, eighty five percent of the games sold in 2007 were E, E10 or T. This equates to the G, PG and PG13 ratings in the film industry. The rating system is administered by a self imposed oversight board called the Entertainment Software Review Board. If you are interested in finding out what happens when an industry does not self regulate, take a look at David Hajdu's excellent analysis of the death of the comic book business, entitled "The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic Book Scare and How it Changed America."

I went through the top selling games to see what people were buying ratings-wise. I compared the games to relevant films and other content, not to justify the game content, but to create a reference point for people unfamiliar with the game content.

The top 20 games of 2007 were: 
1) Call of Duty 4 (M) - most like Black Hawk Down (R)

2) Halo 3 (M) - most like Star Wars (PG) meets Alien (R)

3) Guitar Hero 3 (T) - most like playing air guitar in your mom’s basement

4) FIFA Soccer 08 (E) - most like watching a soccer game on Univision (GOOOOOOAAAAAL)

5) Madden Football 08 (E) - most like watching the Super Bowl

6) Need For Speed (E 10+) - most like The Fast and the Furious without the sex(PG13)

7) Pokemon Diamond and Pearl (E) if you don't know, I can't explain it.

8) Assassins Creed (M) - most like The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc (R)

9) Super Mario Galaxy (E) - most like Finding Nemo without the story (G)

10) Brain Age (E) - most like a rowing machine for your brain

11) The Simpsons (T) - most like, well, The Simpsons: The Movie (PG 13)

12) Pro Evolution Soccer (E) - most like watching a soccer game on Japanese TV

13) WWE Smackdown vs. Raw 2008 (T) most like WWE on TV

14) Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games (E) - most like a Saturday morning cartoon in the good old days

15) Spiderman 3 (T) - most like Spiderman 3 (PG 13)

16) Transformers: The Game (T) - surprisingly similar to Transformers: The Movie (PG 13)

17) Mario Party 8 (E) - most like a game of Candyland on acid

18) Tiger Woods PGA Tour 08 (E) - slightly more interesting than watching the Masters on TV.

19) Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (T) - curiously similar to Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (PG 13)

20) Forza Motorsport 2 (E) - strikingly similar to watching auto racing on TV.

The three “M” rated games accounted for roughly 23% of the slightly less than 90 million units in sales represented by this list. Contrary to popular belief, there are no “Hostel’s” in there and no “Debbie Does Dallas.” In fact I challenge anyone to find a single naked boob. More significantly, I challenge anyone to find a single scene involving gratuitous violence.

Game ratings are based on similar criteria to those applied by the MPAA. The number one title, Call of Duty 4 places you in the middle of a war zone. People are shooting at you from all over, your buddies are dying and you are killing bad guys who look an awful lot like Iraqi insurgents.  Kids shouldn't play it. On the other hand, an adult gamer, would no more want to play an E version of the game, than watch a version of Black Hawk Down edited to secure a G rating. If you think these games are getting into the hands of children directly, you are just wrong.  The average age of the most frequent game buyer is 38 years old and Eighty percent of console games were purchased by people over the age of 18.   

I know statistics can be manipulated, so let's just look at practicalities.  If a person under the age of 18 tries to purchase a game at Wal-Mart, Blockbuster, Target, Toys R Us or Gamestop, a register prompt tells the cashier to check ID. Kids who are playing these games get them from their parents.  In Wal-Mart, Target and Toys R Us, the games are locked behind glass.  I don't think the bullets are locked up in Wal-Mart.  A kid can't even get the game to the register unless someone hands it to them.  When it happens, the someone is usually their parent - assuming none of us are catering to the dead end kids hanging out Gamestop looking for "buyers." You don't have to believe me, you can hear straight from the kids in this post on, where they explain their games come from their parents.

I am not delusional. I know there are ultra violent games out there. I played the snuff film called Manhunt and saw the ESRB speech where Gail Markels showed the scene from Postal where the player lights someone on fire and pees on them, but these games just don't sell in volume. Don't take my word for it, look on the top 100. You won't find them. Based on the unit sales of the 100th title, if you don’t make it into the top 100, you don’t earn out your production cost.

Like any other media, violence alone will not sell games. The game must be good. The Sopranos was loaded with violence and boobies on HBO, but they were able to strip out the violence and boobies and still had a hit on A&E. The same can be said for any best selling M rated game. But as grown ups, why should we? So Mr. Politician, when complaining about in game violence, we are really asking whether someone over the age of 18 should be able to watch Black Hawk Down or Alien.


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